Mar 15 2012
It really wasn’t a safe choice. Sure, any jamoke can warble the melody to “China Girl” or slur a decent drunken rendition of “Ziggy Stardust” into a karaoke mic. David Bowie has recorded some of the seminal tunes of the last century. His songs are recognizable for a lot of reasons, but none more important than his treatment of the melody. As much as any rocker, Bowie could spin an addictive melody, one that gets recognized long long after the song’s release date. The thing of it is, there was nothing simple about Bowie’s melodies. Sure, they’re easy to hum and they stick to brain like audio glue, but there was always something just a little off in his melodies, something that skewed them just a couple degrees off of Normal. The way to view Bowie’s melodies are as off the reflection of the lake’s surface… clear, but shimmering. So, yeah, Bowie’s melodies may be catchy as hell, but holding them in your hand is an entirely different matter. It’s like grasping onto water.
Let’s talk about how Wee Trio grasps water.
Your album personnel: Dan Loomis (bass), James Westfall (vibes), and Jared Schonig (drums).
And here’s the track listing, with the original Bowie album in parenthesis:
T1: Battle for Britain (Earthling)
T2: Queen Bitch (Hunky Dory)
T3: The Man Who Sold the World (The Man Who Sold the World)
T4: Ashes to Ashes (Scary Monsters)
T5: 1984 (Diamond Dogs)
T6: Sunday (Heathen)
That a vibraphone led trio should attempt to cover Bowie actually makes a lot of sense. Vibes are pretty. They sound happy and clean and they have a bouncy sound. Just like Bowie’s melodies! But as Bobby Hutcherson taught us, vibes can also haunt; they can prowl through a composition or batter it mercilessly. Vibes can turn hazy and dissipate from sight. Vibes are a lot like the sound of piano viewed as a reflection on the water’s surface.
But speaking for myself, a life-long Bowie fan, while I was thrilled to hear that this album existed, it was an emotion counter-balanced by my pragmatic expectation that it would probably piss me off, leaving me unsatisfied by not treating Bowie songs in a way that I think they should have been approached. This is a threat that every artist or ensemble must face when reinterpreting the tunes of a Music Great.
Like I said, this wasn’t a safe choice.
On “Battle for Britain,” Bowie was going for the electro-rock sound. I don’t recall the album getting received too warmly, but in many ways, it wasn’t too far distant from some of his dissonant glam-rock of the mid-to-late 70s albums a la Lodger, Low, and Diamond Dogs (and compiled quite brilliantly on the album Changes II), just maybe a little bit louder and crisper.
Wee Trio really uses the electro-rock element as a way of attacking the composition with rapid-fire rhythms (an extremely deft representation actually), while still returning to the melody with homing pigeon regularity. Each time they come back to that melody, there is a welcoming sense of returning to the nest that really glues the tune in tight with the rhythmic exhilaration.
Bowie’s “Queen Bitch” has the oh-so-satisfying balance of acoustic and electric guitar and Bowie vocal aeronautic swoops between smooth harmony and screeching inflections. Bounce your head and tap your foot and its a song that’ll stick in the back of the head long after the song has ended. Some grunge and some glam and catchy as hell.
There is nothing catchy about Wee Trio’s treatment of this song. Listening to the Bowie and Wee Trio versions back to back (repeatedly), I felt as if I was listening to inverted compositions. If Bowie’s version was a tree, Wee Trio snipped off a leaf from its melody, planted it in the soil, and created an entirely new species of flora from it. If you listen hard enough, you can catch bits here and there that trace the new version’s melody back to its parentage, but that’s about where the similarities end. Well, there is an enthusiasm inherent in both versions that are comparable, but that’s pushing it a bit when doing Before and After pictures. Ultimately, it’s my least favorite tune on the album, but I can’t help but appreciate their initiative at taking an element from the song and expanding on it from there into entirely new sound territories. It’s that kind of musicianship that I love so dearly about Jazz. So while the Wee Trio’s take on Queen Bitch may not have been to my liking, I find myself strangely appreciative that they didn’t just do a straight cover. This is almost certainly the tune (and there’s one on every album) that I’ll be perpetually adjusting my opinion of.
“The Man Who Sold the World”, from the early-Bowie album of the same name was a catchy little tune with a folk-rock foundation and some strangely amenable Latin action. Walking basslines, guitar success through repetition, and easy-peasy Bowie vocals. Aside from “1984,” this is Wee Trio’s most literal treatment of the original. Wee Trio’s version is very much like a child’s lullaby, mesmerizing and likely to lull one into a peaceful state of mind. When the tune gets increasingly lively, its trend toward repetitive statements allows it to retain that lullaby quality. Beautiful.
On “Ashes to Ashes”, the trio hits the melody, but only in fragments, and often asymmetrically. I have no idea if this was intentional or not, but it’s thematically clever as a reference to the original version, as the song described a skewed man whose life was falling to pieces. Westfall blasts away on vibes, slowing down long enough to reference that classic melody. The tune’s center of gravity lays at the interplay between all three musicians, trading running lines that intersect but on different planes. For me, this song was easily the highlight of the album. Thrilling, really. It also contrasts nicely with Bowie’s version, which was eerily sedate, and despite its pop-song pretensions, was a song that exuded a state of depression. Wee Trio’s version focuses on the deconstruction of the song’s main character rather than his depressive state.
On 1984, Bowie fused his electro-gloom period with a bit of disco for a dark tune based on Orwell’s book of the same name. The song is a little bit theatrical cabaret and a little bit nu-disco, so it’s the kind of song you initially put on as background music but find yourself suddenly dancing to. The song opens with a pretty literal translation of the original, though without any of the original’s flamboyance. Melodies are dead ringers for one another. Loomis gets his bass to vocalize Bowie’s tones with startling precision.
Bowie’s version of “Sunday” keeps him singing in lower registers with small inflections and changes in cadence. He sings over a twitchy electronic drone and too-smooth harmonizing electronic effects. There is a little bit of a chant feel to the song, and the atmospherics are, to my tastes, a bit overdone. But then again, some of these same elements I absolutely adore in Radiohead, so my criticism of Bowie on this song may have more to do with my nostalgic view of how he should sound versus judging Heathen as how it is and not how I want it to be.
Wee Trio begins with hypnotic gurgles of sound, Loomis’s bass the only one of the three breaking the surface of the water. When vibes begin stating the melody, it’s with a stately quality that brings the song an elegance where Bowie went more with a solemn aesthetic. The trio explodes out of it with jackhammer rhythms that gain steam as they grow lighter on their feet. When they return to the melody without breaking step, it’s a strong strong moment.
And then the album’s over.
I found myself wanting a day of nothing but the music of David Bowie. I started out that way, but kept drifting back to Wee Trio’s album. It was nice to experience a different facet of Bowie’s music through the sound and vision of a jazz trio. It got me to wanting other ensembles to grab the Bowie songbook. Ultimately, it had me excited about the possibilities of future music of other musicians. I could almost hear that music, which, of course, existed only in my own head. That kind of visceral reaction isn’t easily induced. Wee Trio made a connection with Bowie’s music, which also connected with me.
That rates Wee Trio’s Ashes to Ashes as a winner in my book.
That’s it. I was gonna try to wrap up the review with some tie-in to the initial melody-as-water metaphor in my opening statement, but I like how the review wound itself up.
Released on the Bionic Records label, which appears to be run by vibes man Westfall.
Jazz from the New Orleans scene.
Available on Amazon: MP3